Real Food Tips: 10 Pointers for Farmers’ Market Shopping

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Farmers’ market season isn’t quite over yet, and we’re actually lucky enough to have a market close by that goes all winter long. It took me almost a year from the first time I ever stepped foot in a farmers’ market (which was just at the beginning of last year!) to figure out there is definitely a method to the madness. So following are some of our best tips to help you navigate and optimize your local market!

Matthews Farmers' Market near Charlotte, NC

  1. Find and shop at a grower’s only farmers’ market. This ensures all products are local. Here in Charlotte we love the Matthews Farmers’ Market (pictured) because it is the biggest grower’s only market in the area. I once went to the Charlotte Regional Farmers’ Market, which allows third party vendors, and saw blueberries from Chile for sale.
  2. Ask if the market manager sends out an email or newsletter showing what you can expect to find on upcoming market days because it can be a big help with meal planning.
  3. Arrive as close to the opening time as possible because the “good stuff” can run out fast. I also prioritize my shopping list. For example, if it is the first weekend that greenhouse tomatoes or field-grown corn are available, I go to those vendors first because I know they’ll be gone in no time.
  4. On the flip side if you show up at the end of the market you might find some smashing deals because I guarantee no farmer wants to take their produce back to the farm.
  5. Map out which farmers are certified organic or are not necessarily certified but follow organic practices and be sure to give them most of your business. All you have to do is ask if they use chemical pesticides/fertilizers or more natural methods instead and if you’re at a grower’s only market they will surely know the answer. If you find yourself struggling between the choice of local/conventional produce vs. organic/well-traveled produce…I hate to tell you there is no perfect choice.
  6. If you have kids let them tag along and give them a buck or two to buy something. My 6-year-old daughter would never eat cucumbers at home, but for some reason she likes to buy one herself at the market and take a couple big bites out of it while we are shopping!
  7. If you are looking for something specific ask questions like…Does anyone sell ground beef around here? Do you know where I can find goat cheese? Just because you don’t see a sign for something doesn’t mean they don’t sell it.
  8. Don’t be fooled by the baked goods. Sure the muffins for sale are a far better option than the highly processed ones you’ll find at Starbucks, but chances are most of them are still full of refined grains and sweeteners (like sugar) so just know what you are buying.  It all goes back to asking questions!
  9. Don’t forget to bring cash and reusable shopping bags or a cooler with ice packs if it is a hot day.
  10. Enjoy the sense of community and get to know the hand that grows the food you feed your precious family!

If you have any other tips of your own please leave them in the comments below.

Related posts:
How far does your produce travel?
Mini-Pledge Week 11: Eat Local Foods


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75 comments to Real Food Tips: 10 Pointers for Farmers’ Market Shopping

  • […] I figured out that the “good” eggs are the local ones found at the farmers’ market (that come in all different colored shells by the way, including white). I learned that in most […]

  • I love living in Florida because the growing season is year round and so are the farmer’s markets. It’s so much easier to get high quality local produce and so much more. (I also like the sunshine and warm weather, but that’s not what this post is about.) *wink*

  • Being a farmer, I love to see posts like this. But I have to add a few things, as a grower. Hopefully, if you know both sides of the coin, you can make the best choices for you & yours.

    You suggest the option of going at the end of market to get deals because growers don’t want to take things home. Be careful with this one. Our farm attends 4 weekly farmer’s markets, in addition to having our own all-local, all-sustainable store in town (supplied by 20+ local growers in addition to our farm.) Understand, there are some farmers who will discount end-of-market produce. But, there are many who will not. For some growers, this is a big pet peeve and they consider it an insult when people expect big discounts, just because they waited until the end of market.

    As a grower, your profit margin is pretty slim, so you have to have a plan for unsold produce. For us, anything unsold becomes a value-added product at another market (zucchini becomes zucchini bread, berries become cobblers or jam, tomatoes become salsa, etc.) For other growers, unsold produce is feed for their livestock. Some have arrangements with restaurants to buy anything that doesn’t sell by the end of the day. And then, there’s the growers that supply our store. Many of them stop off at the store after market day to drop off anything unsold. (Just because it didn’t sell at market doesn’t mean it’s no good any more…most of us seasoned growers know how to keep our produce fresh, even through a hot summer market day.)

    None of this is to say that asking if the grower has any deals at the end of the day is a bad idea. It’s not. There are growers (and some types of produce) that really do need to sell same-day. Just be careful not to insult your growers. Remember – this is what they do for a living. Would you want your employer to discount your pay, just because it’s close to the end of your day?

    And as for trusting whether a grower is telling the truth or not about their growing practices? There are some things to help you decide your level of trust for a given grower. Look for the folks who are there EVERY week (or at least, most every week.) Let me tell ya…we know each other. People ask us questions about our neighbor vendors all the time. If a regular vendor were out there spreading bull about their products, they wouldn’t get to stay long. The other vendors would spread the word, their sales would drop, and no grower will attend a market that doesn’t make them enough money. (Most markets have a market agreement all vendors must sign for liability purposes – and most of those have rules about properly representing your products…liars don’t get to stick around long before the market managers catch wind of it.)

    Conversations with your growers go a long, long way toward building the trust you need. I know a lot of growers/farms who opt to forego USDA certification because of cost AND the amount of control over the decision-making process for their farm they have to give up (if you deviate from your approved farm plan, like replanting a damaged crop, you have to get ‘permission’ from your certifying agent first.) Take questions like “do you use petroleum-based fertilizers” to the next level. Ask them what they use instead. Ask them how they manage pests, rather than simply ‘do you use pesticides.’ You’ll get a pretty good feel from your very first conversation whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Organic growing is far, far more than just the type of fertilizer you use or whether you use pesticides – regardless of whether you’re certified organic or not. Organic/sustainable growing focuses on building soil health, maximizing water resources, building micro-organisms in your soil, attracting beneficial insects, and breaking the lifecycle of harmful pests/diseases. The inputs and pest control practices we use are just scratching the surface of what it means to grow organically.

  • Doug

    Why do we want to run to the government for them to tell us something is organic? Have you seen the organic in the stores? Follow the manufacturers, companies…get the government out of our food chain…

  • […] avoiding processed food). To be honest the closest you are going to get to a place like that is the farmers’ market, and even then I still like to ask if they spray chemical pesticides or use synthetic fertilizers […]

  • Caitlin

    I like to make my meal plan for the week, write out a shopping list, and then go shopping but I am not sure how to do this with a farmers market. If they don’t have all the produce items that are on your list, do you just get the rest of the items at the store? Thanks!

  • Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

    Hi Caitlin. Yes, both but often plan menus around a lot of what we will be fairly certain to find at the farmer’s market. We do weekly visits to the grocery store, as well. :)

  • nora

    Hello,I am new at this. I haven’t. Started but would love to try it. I realy need to change my way of eating. I am not able to find a farmer’s market were i live. Any suggestions. I live in Addison,IL. Thanks

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